Washington, 20 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush has announced the start of a U.S.-led military campaign against Iraq.
About 90 minutes after the expiration of Bush's 48-hour ultimatum for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his sons to leave Iraq or face war, the U.S. military struck a site near Baghdad with cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs. Fire from Iraqi antiaircraft batteries lit up the sky.
Minutes later, Bush made this announcement in a televised address to the American people from the White House: "My fellow citizens, at this hour American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger."
Bush, who warned the campaign could be longer and more difficult than many predict, continued: "On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war. These are opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign."
U.S. officials said the location was believed to be a "target of opportunity" where "elements of the Iraqi leadership" were meeting, including possibly Saddam himself. Saddam survived the attack and spoke on Iraqi television several hours later.
The strike was reportedly carried out by radar-avoiding Stealth bombers firing precision weaponry with missiles launched from U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf.
The nature of the initial attack surprised many observers who had been expecting Washington to launch its campaign with a massive "shock and awe" bombing of Baghdad in the opening hours.
U.S. officials later said a massive aerial attack on the Iraqi capital would come later, possibly no earlier than nightfall.
Raymond Tanter, an expert on rogue regimes and terrorism, was a member of former President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council. Tanter made this observation to RFE/RL: "In effect the war has begun, but it didn't begin in the anticipated fashion, in the sense of 3,000 bombs hitting and the 'shock and awe.' There's no 'shock and awe' about this."
Meanwhile, sporadic explosions believed to have been caused by American missile attacks continued to rock the outskirts of Baghdad for several hours after the initial U.S. strike.
Bush gave his order after an unusual third meeting of his military and national security aides in the Oval Office that lasted almost four hours. U.S. officials say Bush was presented with intelligence at that meeting that he decided to act on.
Bush, who said the sole U.S. aim was to remove a threat and free the Iraqi people from Saddam's rule, said American and coalition forces would seek to minimize civilian casualties. But he added: "In this conflict, America faces an enemy that has no regard for conventions of war or rules of morality. Saddam Hussein has placed Iraqi troops and equipment in civilian areas, attempting to use innocent men, women, and children as shields for his own military -- a final atrocity against his people."
Air-raid sirens continued to sound off and on over Baghdad following Bush's speech.